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Father mourns namesake after son dies in Plant City crash

PLANT CITY — Friends knew Juan P. Sanchez Jr. as the barber of Plant City.

At 18 years old, he planned to begin school next week to hone his skill and become licensed in the trade. Four months ago, his parents gave him a 2006 Ford Mustang as a graduation gift to show how proud they were of his goals and accomplishments.

Sanchez died early Sunday behind the wheel of his car after another young driver failed to obey a stop sign and slammed into the rear of the Mustang, the Florida Highway Patrol said. Two passengers with Sanchez were badly hurt.

It marked the second time in days that Juan Sanchez Sr. mourned the loss of a loved one. Last week, it was his nephew Michael Longoria, who authorities said was the first victim of a gunman who went on to kill another man caught in a crossfire with police.

This time, the blow was even harder. Sanchez lost the one he expected to pass on his family name.

"He was my only son," said Sanchez. "Now there's no one left to carry on my name."

Troopers say Juan Sanchez Jr. died in the crash shortly before 12:30 a.m. He was westbound on U.S. 92 when the driver of a 2001 Toyota Celica disregarded a stop sign and collided with Sanchez.

Troopers identified the Toyota's driver as Eric Layton, 19, of Plant City. He was taken to Lakeland Regional Medical Center with critical injuries.

The two passengers with Sanchez were also taken to the Lakeland hospital. Troopers said Ariel E. Laboy, 17, sustained critical injuries and Samantha Wood, 18, suffered serious injuries. An FHP report listed both passengers as Plant City residents. Little else was known about them Sunday.

Charges are pending the outcome of an investigation, but troopers indicated on their initial report that alcohol did not appear to have played a role.

Neither driver was wearing a seat belt, nor was Laboy, the FHP said. Troopers didn't indicate whether Wood was wearing one.

Layton, the Toyota's driver, was southbound on Rogers Road when he failed to obey the stop sign as he approached U.S. 92, troopers said. The impact sent both vehicles in a tailspin, causing them to collide with an empty house at 5401 W U.S. 92. Neighbors said the tenants moved out last week.

"Oh Lord, it looked like dominos," Tammy Rouse, 45, said of the cars that landed stacked on top of each other.

Troopers said the collision caused Sanchez's car to hit a street sign, construction barricades and a tree before slamming into the house. Rouse said the Toyota was pinned beneath the Mustang, with the Mustang nearly upright against the empty house.

"It was a mess," said Rouse, who lives just behind the accident scene and awoke in the middle of the night to flashing lights.

Vince Strickland, 26, of Lakeland was forced to detour because of the accident as he made his way to a friend's house after work. Layton was supposed to be there, too, he said.

When Layton never made it, friends got worried and walked to the accident scene where they found his car.

"I was just shocked," said Strickland, who returned to the site Sunday. "It could have happened to any of us. It was horrible. You can't even describe what it was like to see."

Known to most as "JP," Sanchez stole the spotlight with jokes and laughter everywhere he went, relatives said.

"He'd just walk in the room and you know he's going to say something funny," said older sister, Amanda Arguijo, who immediately flew in from Ivanhoe, N.C., when she heard the news.

Adrian Mata, 19, of Plant City spoke with Sanchez a short time before the accident. Relatives said Sanchez had gone to a friend's to watch the Oscar De La Hoya fight. Mata said Sanchez called to invite him over for an after-party.

But before Mata made it, he saw the mangled accident scene from his home a few blocks away.

Mata and Sanchez had been friends since elementary school. But he said he didn't recognize Sanchez's lifeless body until authorities had notified relatives.

"I just remember some woman shining a flashlight on him and saying, 'This one is gone,' " Mata recalled Sunday afternoon at the crash site.

He had remained there until after 4 a.m. Sunday, until the last of the debris had been cleared.

Mata returned a few hours later, flanked by friends who visited the site, then stopped by the Sanchez family home to grieve.

"Hopefully, he will be accepted by God," Sanchez Sr. said of his son. "I'm sure he will."

Reach Kevin Graham at kgraham@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3433.

Father mourns namesake after son dies in Plant City crash 12/07/08 [Last modified: Friday, December 12, 2008 2:40pm]
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